07 June 1999
Greetings from the New Zealand embassy in Moscow. I've come here
to quickly describe my adventures in Zabaikalsk and afterwards.
It sounds like the border guards were telling a couple of fibs
when they said that they got in touch with my embassy in Moscow.
No one here knows anything about my being detained at Zabaikalsk.
Mike and Brenda thought I was going to be sent back to China, and
that I would make my own way from there (somehow).
Because things were a bit rushed last time, I didn't really get around to saying much, so here is perhaps a more complete travelogue.
Flew to Auckland from Wellington and the first person I see as I walk through the international terminal doors was Geoff Halls from ex-DCSB. He was on the same flight as me and is doing a bit of a tour of Europe visiting rallies and suchlike. Caught up with Family, after a little panic (on my part) of whether they would find me in the terminal, but no worries there. Thanks heaps for those who came to say bye-bye.
11-something hour flight to balmy hot Hong Kong arriving at about 10pm local. Landed at the Island Airport and drove to Kowloon where we where staying. Really nice hotel, and the Air-con much appreciated.
Did a bit of a walk around the block checking out a couple of shops and stuff. Prices are not really any different to NZ$, so not much point in buying anything. Did the despicable westerner 'buy a hot chocolate at McDees' then off to bed. Spent the next day boring ourselves silly going around the shops, and discovered that I am a magnet to all of the people selling stuff on the street.
Went back to the Airport, got some Chinese Yuan, then jumped on our Dragon Air flight to Beijing. Customs at Beijing was a bit of a shock after seeing HK. In comparison it was like a bus terminal. No problems though, and the transfer to our hotel went quite smoothly. Beijing was just covered by this layer of smog. You can't see any blue sky, only a perpetual grey haze. I have no idea if it is always there, but it makes the place a little dreary.
Our map of the city was pretty pathetic, but I found a decent one at McDees (hey, I needed a toilet and only got a coke) and got a better picture of the city proper. I caught a cycle-rickshaw-thingy to Tianimen square, and cruised to the Forbidden City for a squiz around. Got pretty sick of being stared at all of the time. There are very few westerners in Beijing, and we are perhaps a bit of a novelty I suppose.
Was getting used to using a few basic phrases of Mandarin, but the term I had for no didn't seem to work on the street hawkers. Afterwards I found out that I had it right, and that they where just persistent buggers. I got accosted by one that I ended up buying his bloody knife just to get rid of him. I also didn't like how he kept pulling it out of the sheath. Heaps of locals who were walking by stopped and stared at the exchange, I paid him the couple of bucks he wanted for it then his mate tried to sell me another.
The next day I just cycled around the city. Beijing is huge. I made it out to the third ring road in a couple of hours on this bike that was such a heap. Got a flat on the way back and had some fun finding someone to fix it. (look for a bowl of water on the side of the road. it's used to check for leaks.) It cost me 2 NZ$ for a new tube, but I was so grateful I tipped the guy another 10. Totally ruining it for any other tourist passing that way :)
The three of us jumped on the train out of Beijing and headed for Irkutsk. The only regret is I didn't eat Peking Duck in the Peking Duck restaurant. Still, the food I did have was fabulous on the whole. the best being a small eatery a local (with no English) show me to. Very yummy.
I bought a couple of glass and wood board games in China which has taken my pack up from 12kgs to 18kgs (including the food supplies I bought at Beijing) but I figured I didn't have to carry it far, so no worries. The train journey to the Chinese/Russian border was uneventful, but nice. Met a few other kiwis on the train (5 Kiwis + 1 Aussie + 1 American) all the rest where Chinese and Russians.
Got to Manzhouli, and was (not) pleasantly surprised to find the banking facilities non-existent, so was faced with the prospect of have Chinese yuan and being unable to change it. Our itinerary said to change it into US$ at the border, but I would recommend changing all but a few Yuan back at Beijing. Got through to Zabaikalsk (love that place :( ) and a couple of people were able to change Yuan to US$ until Brenda cleaned them out. Mike got stuck with several hundred NZ$ worth and I was faced with the prospect of being sent back to China.
Being sent back didn't sound that bad, so I wasn't too worried.
A couple of ideas from the embassy here, is that I was either;
1- singled out for being detained because they were bored
2- they were planning on extorting money from me but I wasn't carrying much, so tough luck.
3- they were getting kickbacks from the meals I was buying at local resterants (I was escorted out to buy food)
4- they knew something about me before I got there? I don't know about his one, but we did discuss it. The border post gets sent details of everyone coming into Russia apparently, but what would make them single me out I don't know.
Something they didn't like was my two American visas that I got while at five squadron, and the fact that I hadn't travelled on my passport for 8 years.
I kept asking to ring the NZ embassy, but was told that communications were bad, and wasn't given the option to go back to China. When they first started walking my away from the Railway station, I thought they where going to knock me off, and split whatever was in my pack between them. Thinking about it, what I was carrying was probably worth about a years wage or so.
I won't go into the details too much, because it wasn't really too cool. It's kind of funny now, but I really did not like being locked up. It was quite interesting meeting some local mafia, and being asked if I wanted to live there (yeah right!), but I'll be so happy when I make it to London.
That's not to say that I won't come back, because I would like to. I just won't be going through Zabaikalsk again :)
Bought a train ticket to Chita and had a lot of fun buying an onward ticket to Irkutsk. Nobody seemed to speak English in Chita and finding a hotel was pretty tricky. Managed to get on the internet by finding a telecoms building and asking for internet. One of the computer guys who spoke English let me use it for about 50P (5NZ$) for an hour.
I also tried to phone the embassy in Moscow, but the lady at the telecoms place did not like the telephone number for some reason. (again no English)
There is something a little strange about hotels. Most seem to require some sort of declaration saying that you are officially travelling through Russia and can stay at a hotel. Because I was delayed, and also because I was never meant to go to Chita, I had no declaration, and was turned away from the hotels I went to. I only knew how to ask for one room for one night, and again, no one spoke English. I ended up renting a sort of a house thing for one night for about $40NZ which was probably a bit of a rip, but I didn't care. It was infested with cockroaches, but after having the lights on for a couple of seconds, they all buggered off to their little homes and the place actually looked pretty flash.
Headed out to find some grub. The word for restaurant looks like Pectopah and I couldn't see one anywhere. Ended up scored a meal in a park which was basically meat of a shish-kebab type arrangement, some onions and bread. Russian bread is so bad even the pigeons won't eat it. (honest) Some skinhead guy came up and tried to get me to buy vodka. I thought he was going to mug me because even after saying that I don't want vodka (in Russian) he still wanted me to buy some. (not from him, but for him)
I tried to find a safe way back to my house and met a couple of Russian girls acting silly buggers on the sidewalk. I said something like "too much vodka?" and it turned out they spoke excellent English and were keen on the practice. We went to Lenin park and met the rest of their friends and talked away until midnight. They all spoke pretty good English, and I had a choice time.
Made it onto my train the next day to Irkutsk okay, and was travelling with a Russian priest and his wife and son, Dema (none of whom spoke English, although the priest tried Spanish on me). Dema and I played games for most of the trip. After his initial shyness I got him to teach me the Russian alphabet, so now I can read the Cyrillic alphabet almost as well as maybe a 2-3 year old. (very badly) But most of the time I have no idea what the words are, but it's a start.
I wasn't feeling too well at this stage, probably because my diet hadn't been too good. Kind of difficult to buy nice food with no language, so I'd been limited to buying from the little kiosk places that are dotted everywhere. (bread and snacks) It was really hard to find somewhere to eat. Cafes are non-existent. And most shops are smaller than the smallest corner dairy. The Babuskas (old women) at each train stop sell some pretty good food sometimes, but The family I was travelling with insisted I share some of their food, which was really yum. I was so hanging out for some greenery and munched away on the cucumber, chicken, tomato and bread in bliss.
Arrived in Irkutsk at 1am and had no fun with the great hotel hunt once again. thought I could get a room at Angara (where I was meant ot be staying) but because the dates on the declaration where for the previous three days, I was turned away once again. Stayed at Intourist and got totally fleeced by the (not a real) taxi driver. I can still hear him laughing from Moscow. He had said 15 when I asked how much, but turned out he wanted 15 US$ not roubles. After the dick-around at Angara hotel and him taking me to Intourist, he then wanted 25US$ What a cheek! But he was bigger than me, I was tired (and not feeling too well again) and he started getting pretty agro so I gave him 500 roubles which he did NOT want to take (he was very insistent on US$).
Irkutsk was okay, but I was just getting tired out the language problem with buying tickets, and couldn't get to Moscow in time for my London flight by train, so I bought a flight to Moscow for 94 US$, then went for a bit of a walk-about.
Got my films developed (another mission in Russian), bought a couple of music tapes to listen to. Everything here is pirated. It's about NZ$1.50 to buy a tape and NZ$3.50 for a video. Was tempted to buy the first episode (star wars) on VHS, but couldn't bear to see it if it was dubbed using standard Russian techniques. (loud Russians overtop of the original soundtrack)
Saw this poor mistreated bear-cub being used as someone's income. The thing must have been so hot, and you could see that it was not happy. It was pretty depressing. There were a crowd of Russians that didn't look to impressed either, but I wasn't really too sure.
Caught a taxi the next day out to the Airport (20 something kays for NZ$5) and jumped on my flight to Moscow.
Got here with my body clock 5 hours out of sync, and went for a bit of an explore. Checked out Red square and the surrounds of the Kremlin. Heaps of shows and events due to it being Alexander Puskins anniversary.
Moscow is really beautiful at night, and the architecture around here is fantastic. Still got heaps to see and explore, so I'm off to tour the town.
That's pretty much my whack. I'll spot you all from London I think. (assuming they let me out of Russia.)
I'll definitely be getting a new passport on London though. :)
Bye for now!